• The Learning Commons Explained

    As technology presence and use has grown in schools, one area that has seen a continuing evolution is the school library.  Currently, our libraries are branded as “media centers”, a term that encompasses the breadth of both print and digital literacy and a mission to educate our students on how to access information in a variety of ways and use that knowledge effectively.  

    We are now embarking on the next transition for those spaces, from media centers to “learning commons”.   This is not a simple rebranding, but another philosophical shift to continue to broaden the scope of what we mean when we talk about literacy and how we craft engaging experiences for our students.  The purpose of this article is to give that vision some context and rationale, and to help make the outcome more concrete.

    Our media centers right now

    Our typical media center right now has the following features:

    • Shelved print catalogue
    • Catalogue look-up stations
    • A mobile cart to use for projects or accessing digital materials
    • A desktop PC lab space (as part of the larger space or in a directly adjoining room)
    • Collaboration stations (a large TV with multiple inputs for student devices or an Apple TV for connectivity)
    • Some have Makerspaces (generally focused on robotics/coding or hands-on activities)
    • Some have flexible or non-standard seating

    There is nothing inherently wrong with these spaces; they are serving our students well.  The question really is whether there is an opportunity to make them even better.  We believe that such an opportunity exists.  

    A vision for the Learning Commons

    All District Media Centers will be converted to “learning commons” where teachers and students can collaborate, innovate, communicate and share learning.  It merges the best of technology and print or physical worlds by creating zones within the learning commons.   These zones include instructional zones, individual and collaborative zones, makerspace, and a diverse, flexible print and digital collection (literacy zone).

    Some of the specific goals for this transition include:

    Reduce, refine, and decentralize print catalogue - Note that we are not abolishing physical books.  We do want to be more strategic with our purchasing and more aggressive with maintaining our catalogue and keeping it current and relevant.  We also foresee an opportunity to shift some of our catalogue to grade level classroom clusters, making it more accessible to students.

    Expand availability of digital text - As we complete our district-wide technology roll-out in 2017-2018, we will review our digital text options just as thoughtfully as our print options to ensure we have a strong catalogue with high interest and value for our students.

    Greater presence and consistency of Makerspaces - As noted above, our use of makerspaces is inconsistent.  This article provides a great overview of makerspaces - what they are, and why they have value.

    Remove or mobilize traditional computer labs - The good thing about having a computer lab attached to the media center is that it provides another opportunity for learning in that environment.  The bad thing about it is that it provides another location for standardized testing.  Annual testing (such as MCA and NWEA-MAP) isn’t going anywhere.  But, using that lab space for it effectively shuts down the media center for weeks out of the year.  Shifting to a mobile lab space alleviates that problem while also freeing up valuable real estate in the learning commons.  

    More focus on coaching/lab environment in commons - We envision the  learning commons being more engaging not just for our students but for our staff as well.  This will be a space where our Digital Learning Coordinators can conduct training with building staff and model technology-enriched teaching practices.

    Develop learning zones - innovation, literacy, collaboration, makerspace, etc. - We want to expand on what we have started with the media centers in the sense of having a flexible, engaging space that can serve a variety of needs and interests.  That may mean more stations for collaborative activities.  It may mean rethinking our furniture choices and planning multi-year transitions to reconfigure the space.  Some of our media centers have 3-D printers; we will review how those are being used and how to expand stations like that into the learning commons at more schools.  We expect the learning commons to be a vibrant, busy space, but we’ll also want a quiet corner or reading nook.  This is where the overall flexibility of the space and a growth-oriented mindset for the learning commons allow us to continually evolve the space to meet the needs of our students.

    Staff District-Wide media specialists - One factor in this transition is that budgetary pressures required the district to re-evaluate how our media centers were staffed and how to focus our personnel in certain areas.  The net impact in staffing included the reassignment of two media specialists back to the classroom.  We will shift some of our media specialists into the role of digital learning coordinators (formerly coaches), an assignment that is focused on working with staff to continually increase their effectiveness in technology integration.  Several media specialists will continue in that role but with a focus either on maintaining the print and digital catalogue or on the teaching of library and digital citizenship skills.  The media specialists will also continue to promote literacy skills throughout the curriculum and generally foster the love for reading that we hope for all of our students to have.


    We are embarking on a period of transition from media centers to learning commons.  As with any significant change, there will be issues to smooth out along the way.  We believe that there is enough value in this direction to make such a move, and we think it is a direction that is consistent with the district’s vision for student instruction.